Why wasn’t Japan colonized by the European empires?

That is a question that I have some doubts, European countries like Portugal had already been there, but they never colonized that land.

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    Documenting preliminary research will improve both the probability of an answer and the quality of the answer(s) Question will also be difficult to select an Authoritative answer. Please consider revising to fit within our norms & standards.
    – MCW
    Commented Jun 21, 2023 at 13:30
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    Well, they had Godzilla. And Hello Kitty - don't forget Hello Kitty...
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jun 21, 2023 at 17:57
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    @JonCuster - Godzilla was sleeping, until foolishly woken up by US nuclear testing near the end of WWII.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jun 21, 2023 at 18:39
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    @T.E.D. - Godzilla was just taking a nap after keeping those pesky colonizers at bay. But nobody wanted to antagonize Hello Kitty...
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jun 21, 2023 at 18:44
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    @JonCuster : but then why didn't European try to colonize Japan before Hello Kitty was born ?
    – Evargalo
    Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 15:13

2 Answers 2


Japan was in fact vulnerable in the 16th century when the Portuguese and later the Spanish arrived.

But Japan had, despite the civil war, an educated and competent elite as well as an effective administration, aware of European technological advance and the potential danger of European colonization.

It was the activity of the Catholic missionaries and above all the attitude of the Franciscan religious and Spanish visitors in the early years of the 17th century, who were not so focused on the diplomacy and cultural understanding of the Jesuits and the Portuguese that determined the expulsion of all Europeans with the exception of the Dutch by various decrees between 1603 and 1639.

This period of isolation (Sakoku) lasted until 1868 during which time Dutch access was restricted to an annual visit to the island of Dejima in Nagasaki Bay. This period did not mean economic retrogression. Quite the contrary, the Japanese government kept itself informed of the world situation and technological advances through contacts with the Netherlands and invested in the development of its economy. Investment in education was very important.

When industrialization with Western technology began in 1868, Japan already had both capital and universal education and a population ready to take full advantage of industrialization.

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    Sources would improve this answer, as well as an explanation for why other wealthy and organized states (such as in India or China) were not able to avoid colonization or subjugation by European empires.
    – SPavel
    Commented Jun 21, 2023 at 14:52
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    @SPavel China and India did avoid colonisation of the kind seen in Africa and the Americas. India's climate apparently was a factor in deterring colonisation but if you look at the patterns then there are two types of colonisation. The one based around mercantilism which you see in China and India where the colonials are effectively restricted to a major port and the settlement type where farmers, tradesmen form complete communities which you get in Australia and South Africa and the difference would appear to be the local level of development. Commented Jun 22, 2023 at 1:16
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    @SPavel At times, the situation for China and Japan wasn't all that different: Both were subject to Unequal Treaties and conditions like forced free trade or extraterritoriality. However, Japan managed to quickly get out of them.
    – xyldke
    Commented Jun 22, 2023 at 13:26
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    @xyldke that just brings us back to "why was Japan able to do that and not China, given that both had an educated elite and administration?"
    – SPavel
    Commented Jun 22, 2023 at 14:32
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    @MarkJohnson Consider turning your comment into an answer with cited sources.
    – SPavel
    Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 3:38

Besides the accepted answer's focus on obstacle of a complex society and (semi-)centralized government to a quick takeover, it probably wouldn't have been obviously worthwhile.

European colonization projects usually happened for one of two reasons:

  • Profits from resources. This would apply for example to most of Latin America and gold. Africa in the 19th century had ivory and rubber, at least in some instances. Parts of the Caribbean were colonized for salt.

  • Land takeover by European farmer colonies: Australia, North America, Algeria and South Africa.

Japan is not a resource rich country. Nor is it a particularly great area to do European style farming in, being already densely populated and mountainous. Rice is well-suited to it, wheat is not.

So, aside from other considerations, an extensive colonization project would have cost a lot, without obvious returns. Not great ROI prospects.

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    Japan had silk, and prior to deep-mining Japan with all it's volcanic activity was a major exporter of copper and silver in the 1600's. Not to mention superior craftsmanship and metalsmithing. The Portuguese the only Europeans permitted to trade in Japan; mainly acted as intermediaries with China. The Chinese Emperor had outlawed trade with Japan due to pirate activity. The reason Europe never colonized is probable because they were never permitted a foothold, logistics, and generally the fierce reputation of the Japanese demonstrated against any Europeans who crossed them.
    – JMS
    Commented Jun 28, 2023 at 17:40
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    @JMS Yes, I am aware of silver, which could have motivated invasion. Re. silk, I don't know if the labor requirements fit well with a restive, subjugated, population - that's not a negative position, I truly don't know. Commented Jul 5, 2023 at 16:47

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